A new BBC season of programmes concerns ‘the novels that shaped our world.’ The perspective is the novel as a social agent, articulating experience to give it public voice.
We may think of the novel as the literature of personal experience in a domestic setting. It is that, but not wholly so. The novel has a relation to the world. The novel is not a looking glass but a window. A room of one’s own must have a view.
The world that fiction shapes contains many landscapes and many cultures. Fiction is challenging when so much elsewhere is predictable. As readers of fiction we do not seek only what is ours but what is spoken in different voices of things we may not have known until now. We relate to the world in other terms when we engage our imaginations. The creative experience, in the arts and sciences, validates the banalities of day to day living.
We cannot ignore Fielding’s view of the novel as ‘a public ordinary’, meaning a tavern. Fiction for Fielding was a meeting place of generally low reputation, where attorneys and merchants meet with doxies and cutpurses. So many ways of living come together. In the rough cut of living may be found the raw material of human thoughts and feelings waiting to be refined in manner and clothed in style. Fiction is, in Fielding’s view, the alchemy of raw life transformed into high art.
It may not be low life, but it will concern feelings and actions that are not motivated by the higher concerns of humanity. The novel, as entertainment or as art, is a narrative of passion and the outrageous feelings passion generates.
Personal needs and desire find the characters of fiction in opposition to the normative values of society. In a variety of ways this opposition is the wellspring of fiction.
In the narrative of passion novelists like Nell Dunn in Poor Cow illustrate so well Fielding’s description. With extraordinary sympathy Dunn relates the responses to life, and especially to love, of a character whose situation at the social margins is easily overlooked both by society and the portrayal of life in art.
The key word in the aesthetic of the novel is ‘narrative. The novel recounts a story whose dynamic is both compelling and stimulating. The reader’s interest is held, and the reader’s imagination is enriched. Accordingly, the fiction of John Fowles may be considered among the highest of the genre, especially when we take into account the sense of mystery in his depiction of character. The perceived difficulty in not resolving his narratives he has made into a virtue, with plots that are as inconclusive as life, and themes that are as elusive as dreams.
There have been prose romances since antiquity, but it is customary to regard the novel as a literature of the modern, an exploration of the rational consciousness of the secular individual free to make personal choices. There is an urban landscape perhaps, and an urbane frame of mind for sure.
This, of course, is open to question. Robinson Crusoe is exceptional in its narrative of the seemingly real. It is based on actual experience, and reads like a memoir. But the idea that Western civil society could be recreated [if only in the mind] of an isolated individual is a conceit. Michel Tournier’s modern reworking, Friday, is written in the light of Freud and Marx and Sartre. We know now that we are not in command of our personal situation as islands of virtue in a hostile world. Human identity is forged in human interaction. We always have had the means to know this in our awareness of others.
Before Defoe there were English writers of extended narratives. Aphra Behn is a case in point. Her fiction does not read as a transcription of actual life but of imagined experience. Earlier romances were the sources Shakespeare used to turn narrative prose into poetry. His explorations were explorations of language where plot was a mere device to enable the characters and their words to proceed further to the heart of things. A novelist who could reflect something of those linguistic possibilities in credible narratives may be considered reaching for the highest echelons of the novel. In recent times Lawrence Durrell and Iris Murdoch are names to consider. And, most certainly, Virginia Woolf. Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place recreates with sensitive intensity the inner world of feeling rarely expressed and perhaps never so well as here. Others blazed the trail. O’Brien found the city of gold.
It may be that human nature really did change, as Woolf claimed. Although there is an assured place for the credible realist narrative as the staple of fiction, we also look for something other than the here and now. We can read that in journalism [which is concerned only with the immediacy of events]. The great realists are well described as worldly romantics. Everybody knows that it is not like that in real life. If it were there would be no need to read fiction.
David Copperfield remained in the blacking factory. Jane Eyre was always a governess. These are the realities that fiction protests against in the name of an imagined other.
There are good reasons for celebrating the novel at any time. This new broadcasting venture may be timely given our prolonged social uncertainties, and the current political crisis. Literature can offer a pathway through the confusion of events. That pathway is surely needed.
Of course ‘our world’ is not everyone’s. Confining the venture to the English language sets a culturally-specific parameter. Literature articulates a personal vision, but one which gains its form and meaning from a crossing of bounds of time, place, language and history. Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot is a masterly example of this process. Within the imagined fiction is the creative exploration of an existing fiction by another hand, Flaubert’s. But the authorial presence of Julian Barnes is evident in every sentence of this unusual and compelling work. The limitations of form are crossed to a playful purpose.
‘Only when we escape from under the net of categories can the true task of philosophy begin,’ said Wittgenstein. These words were reflected in a young philosopher’s first novel, Under the Net. Iris Murdoch’s quest for a metaphysic of virtue in human action lies behind her fiction. Her novels seek to distinguish what is nice in the worldly sense from what is good in the moral sense. Her playfulness, her stylish eroticism and her generosity make light of her serious intentions.
There are a number of ways fiction can be regarded. The new BBC venture stresses the social nature of fiction, and not only as a reflection of society. The purpose of the venture is bold: ‘The novel has always been a revolutionary agent of social change.’ Literature subverts agreed meanings. It is an imaginative antidote to institutional mediocrity. It runs counter to the complacent mainstream. Society, including its media, may seek to absorb creative challenges, but an active imagination is always one step ahead.
The point is that it acts by subtle and complex methods. The novel makes a reasoned plea. The greater the work the less obvious its political perspective, Engels observed. Fiction is an art of sequestered and ambiguous meanings. The best fiction suggests rather than declares. If everything were laid bare there would be no unfolding narrative. Fiction interprets the world, and by doing so seeks to change it. A society’s benevolence is measured by its response to the challenge.
The new venture has identified three exploratory areas: empire and slavery; women’s voices; the working class. The terms are socially liberal, but create the problem of excluding work which does not fall readily into these areas. A more radical perspective would transcend categorisation. To seek a preconceived social prescription is to limit the aesthetic and moral possibilities of literature to challenge and change human consciousness.
The transforming nature of fiction includes the exceptional prominence accorded to women. The novel always has been a means of voicing in public a sensibility otherwise marginalized, ignored or denied. One could read only women novelists and be well-read. This is one of the novel’s attractive features, an observation not seriously to be gainsaid. The novel contains the means by which history seeks liberation from the artifices of power.
The matter of empire is more complex than may be supposed. An irony of Robinson Crusoe is that Crusoe was himself a slave when taken captive on an early voyage. Arab scholars have given this more emphasis than their Western counterparts. It should be noted also that the fruits of Irish imaginations are written within a history [or a memory] of colonial occupation. A work like Gulliver’s Travels must be read in this light.
As for class, it is so often downplayed in the contemporary free market societies of the West. This has distorted social observation. The substructure of class has been among the great determinants of cultural identity of communities. It is useful, however, to remember Marx’s insistence that class is a description of social history rather than a means of identifying individual human experience. Added to which there is Trotsky’s sharp reminder that a working class literature might never be possible. Class structures will be transcended by the creative process of revolution. Again, it remains the case that literature, by its ability to transform, breaks the chains that bind.
Society’s ability to bind, even as it declares its tolerance, has to be resisted.
Literature is by its nature oppositional. The critique of social reconstruction is as necessary as the critique of inequity and oppression, although the terms are different. Perfectibility is not a human possibility. Literature has no choice but to ask ‘Why not?’ The question is uncomfortable. It is asked even of liberal media. That is why it always will be literature that has the last word.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall